Ailing runner's race to save lives


FOR AN ENTIRE week, Aran Gordon will live in a tent with eight other people in the Sahara Desert.

That is the least of his problems.

The 44-year-old vice president at T. Rowe Price in Baltimore is about to take on the challenge of a lifetime: running the Marathon des Sables, known as the "most grueling footrace on earth." On Sunday, Gordon and about 800 runners from around the world will race 150 miles over seven days across Morocco's sun-baked desert.

Gordon will run up 1,000-foot sand dunes and traverse mind-numbing stretches of parched earth in temperatures that can hit 125 degrees. The longest run in a single day will be about 50 miles. Like all of the other racers, Gordon will carry everything he needs on his back - food, water, sleeping bag, anti-venom pump - in a pack that weighs about 25 pounds.

"This is an emotionally and physically daunting task; the lead-up to it is incredibly overwhelming," Gordon said in a telephone interview from a hotel in Ouarzazate, Morocco. "It is a big black hole, and we are jumping in."

What makes this race from hell even tougher for Gordon is that he suffers from hemochromatosis, a metabolic genetic disorder that causes iron to build up in the blood. It also is absorbed into the organs, including the brain, and if untreated reaches toxic levels. The person's organs literally rust.

Gordon is on a twofold mission: to finish the race and to save lives by raising $100,000 for Iron Disorders Institute, an organization dedicated to saving people with hemochromatosis. He has raised about $20,000.

One of every 250 people in the United States has the genetic makeup for the disorder, and one in 10 people is a carrier, said Cheryl Garrison, executive director of the Iron Disorders Institute, which is based in Greenville, S.C.

Gordon "is just amazing," Garrison said. "Most people don't realize the incredible burden that individuals with hemochromatosis have. Every single one of their organs is straining to function. It isn't like your average marathon runner. It would be like running with iron weights all over your body."

The disorder has taken a toll on Gordon, even though he is athletic and has it in check.

"I don't know why my skeleton hurts," he said. "I know that hemochromatosis does damage to the skeletal system. My fingers continue to hurt, my back may be more sensitive, my hips are bothering me. I try to put that out of my mind. I don't want to be the one viewed as having the handicap. The reality is, I probably do have some handicaps. That is probably just the way it goes. I didn't want that to stand in the way of a goal."

Gordon began running marathons in 1984. In the early 1990s, he heard about the Marathon des Sables and wanted to one day run the race. But in 1998 he started feeling sick.

He felt exhausted. His liver enlarged and ached all the time. His stomach felt unsettled. His heart beat rapidly, then slowly. His skin turned a bronze color.

"I just hurt so badly," Gordon said. "I was not a happy person emotionally or mentally. I just couldn't figure out why I felt the way I did. You end up going through an extreme state of darkness. That is a side effect of iron on the brain. I would have been dead, there is no question about it. I was going down that path."

The pain was so intense that Gordon had to stop running. He ballooned to 210 pounds from 160 because of hemochromatosis.

It wasn't until 2001 that his doctor figured out the problem while talking with other physicians at a Christmas party. Gordon went through a year of blood therapy but suffered from severe anemia and had pneumonia three times.

By the end of 2003, he started feeling better, as if he had "woken up," he said. He couldn't run, but he could walk. As he grew stronger, he jogged and then ran.

Last year, Gordon called Lisa Smith-Batchen, who in 1999 became the first American to win the Marathon des Sables. He asked her to help him train for the race. She agreed and receives a $1,800-a-year fee. He has trained by doing four and five-hour runs with the pack on his back. In the past seven months, he has run about 10 marathons.

Gordon flew out of Baltimore on Monday and on Tuesday was in Ouarzazate. On Wednesday he ran at a slow pace for an hour and spent four hours going through his backpack to make sure he had everything. Smith-Batchen is there with him.

He will wear one pair of shorts and a shirt for the race and a little sunscreen on his ears and face. The dirt that will accumulate on his body will also help block the sun's rays. He and the other racers will be allotted a total of nine liters of water a day for cooking, bathing and drinking.

His pack contains an anti-venom pump for snakebites and scorpion stings, a compass, sunglasses and goggles for sandstorms. It also holds his freeze-dried food, mashed peanuts, pretzels and Fritos, and electrolyte tablets, of which he'll consume at least 16 a day. He'll also carry two 28-ounce bottles strapped to an auxiliary pack with water and a power drink.

His pack also holds a sleeping bag, a cellophane blanket and a mirror so that he'll be able to alert planes if he is in danger. He will be issued flares, too.

Gordon paid about $2,700 to enter the race. He wrote a separate $120 check for the "body bag."

Today, Gordon and the other racers will be driven six hours into the Sahara. There, for the first time, they will learn the course. His wife, Lara, will remain at home in Baltimore.

"It is not a spectator sport," Gordon said. "Where we are going is to the edge of the Earth."

There, Gordon might learn even more about himself. His goal is to complete the race. His trainer thinks that if he races hard he could be among the top American finishers, he said.

"This is an important milestone for me, having been where I was and having felt the way I felt. I wouldn't wish it on anybody," Gordon said. "I am bound and determined to complete this. If I don't make it, I am coming back next year."

Bill Atkinson's column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. Contact him at 410-332-6961 or by e-mail at bill.atkinson@balt

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